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A New Space Race?

A New Space Race?The launch of China’s first manned spaceflight could lead to healthy competition, but only if the U.S. acts carefully, says a Tufts doctoral student. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.16.03] When the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft safely parachuted to Earth on Wednesday, China opened a new chapter in the manned exploration of space. Just the third nation to send an astronaut into orbit, China appears poised to begin a quickly-growing space program, raising concerns among Bush administration officials of a new space race. Whether the competition will be healthy, or ultimately harmful, lies in the hands of U.S. leaders, says a Tufts doctoral student.

"America's current technological lead ensures that a Cold War-style competition will not likely transpire, in the short term at least," Toshi Yoshihara - a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts - wrote in an op-ed for The Boston Globe. "However, as mutual apprehension and threat perceptions heighten, both sides could seek to undermine each other in space. The resulting efforts to outdo each other could prove costly and destabilizing to international security."

According to Yoshihara, both U.S. and Chinese leaders view space as an important element in future military planning.

"China views U.S. intentions in space with great suspicion. Washington's declaration that it intends to maintain overwhelming space superiority above all other nations (and perhaps militarize space in the process) does not sit well with the Chinese," Yoshihara wrote in the Globe.

U.S. interests in space, coupled with plans for missile defense, worry Chinese leaders.

"Any conceivable missile defense system would threaten to blunt China's modest arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons and thereby erode its delicate deterrent posture vis--vis the United States," wrote the Tufts doctoral student.

U.S. leaders hold similar concerns.

"It is no secret that the Chinese military controls the resources and the direction of China's space program," Yoshihara wrote. "From the program's inception, China's space ambitions have been couched in strategic terms. And the dual-use nature of space technologies means that most advances in the civilian space sector - about 95 percent - can be converted for military purposes."

But an expensive and politically-costly battle for space supremacy could be avoided.

"Both sides ought to shape this new dimension in Sino-U.S. relations for mutual benefit," Yoshihara wrote. "Indeed, fostering healthy competition and promoting cooperation would go a long way toward alleviating the pressures to compete."

President Bush, Yoshihara wrote in the Globe, should take the first step quickly.

"It may be worthwhile for President Bush to raise the space issue with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand next week," the Tufts doctoral student wrote. "Indeed, Bush should act not before a potentially vicious cycle of competition spins out of control."

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